ECU Joondalup researchers develop ground-breaking melanoma blood test

Professor Mel Ziman (head of melanoma research group). Photo: Martin Kennealey
Professor Mel Ziman (head of melanoma research group). Photo: Martin Kennealey

WA researchers are among teams of Australian experts developing ground-breaking new ways to detect cancerous melanomas early in patients by using a simple blood test.

Edith Cowan University (ECU) Joondalup researchers and Melbourne-based company Geneseq Biosciences have separately developed what each considers a ‘world first’ blood test diagnosing skin cancer earlier and more accurately.

In 2016, ECU’s Melanoma Research Group (MRG) developed the MelDx blood test to predict the effectiveness of different types of treatments for melanoma patients after receiving funding from Cancer Council WA, National Health and Medical Research Council, and Tour de Cancer Australia.

In the same year, Dr Ryan van Laar launched Geneseq and unveiled the Melaseq blood test that pinpoints the ‘molecular fingerprint’ of melanoma in the earliest stages of the disease.

Dr van Laar’s findings were published in The British Journal of Cancer in January, while the MRG study results were published today in the Oncotarget journal.

Both breakthroughs claimed to enhance the current method of visually checking a patient for skin cancers and taking a biopsy of any abnormalities.

Dr van Laar said one in six melanomas were misdiagnosed using the current method of checking for skin cancer, meaning that some patients weren’t receiving the early treatment they needed which gave the cancer time to spread.

“The Melaseq blood test however has the ability to detect first stage melanoma, saving millions of healthcare dollars, and more importantly saving lives,” he said.

Australia has the second highest rate of melanoma in the world, with 14,000 new diagnoses each year and about 2000 deaths annually.

According to Dr van Laar, the Melaseq blood test could be done before and after a melanoma had been removed, which provided accuracies of up to 94 per cent.

ECU’s MelDx detected early stage melanoma in 79 per cent of cases out of the 105 people involved in the recent trial.

Lead ECU researcher Pauline Zaenker said identifying melanoma early was the best way to prevent these deaths.

“Patients who have their melanoma detected in its early stage have a five year survival rate between 90 and 99 per cent, whereas if it is not caught early and it spreads around the body, the five year survival rate drops to less than 50 per cent,” she said.

“This is what makes this blood test so exciting as a potential screening tool because it can pick up melanoma in its very early stages when it is still treatable.”

MRG head professor Mel Ziman said a follow up clinical trial was expected to take three years to validate the findings and if successful, a test would be ready for use in pathology clinics soon after.

“The ultimate goal is for this blood test to be used to provide greater diagnostic certainty prior to biopsy and for routine screening of people who are at a higher risk of melanoma, such as those with a large number of moles or those with pale skin or a family history of the disease,” she said.

Dr van Laar anticipated that the Melaseq test would be available within one to two years and performed by general practitioners and pathology collection services.